- If you had asked Hernan Cortes whether the ease with which his army routed the mighty Aztec nation put him on the right side of History, what do you think he would have said?
- If you had caught Robespierre’s ear between executions and asked whether he was on the right side of History, what do you think he would have said?
- If you had pulled Napoleon aside and asked, after the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, whether he was on the right side of history, whether he was the change History had been waiting for, what do you think he would have said?
- If you had interrupted a Francis Galton lecture on the new “science” of eugenics and asked whether he was on the right side of History, what do you think he would have said?
- If you had asked the Leninist agents who stood over the bullet-riddled bodies of the Romanovs whether they were on the right side of History, what do you think they would have said?
- If you had asked Hitler moments after he escaped a bomb blast that should have killed him but resulted only in the executions of such would-be assassins as Dietrich Bonhoeffer whether he was on the right side of History, what do you think he would have said?
- For that matter, when Progressives, feminists, and Evangelicals linked arms to pass the Eighteenth Amendment, what side . . .
You see the point. “Right side of history” is a claim deployed in political debate to delegitimate one’s opponents. It’s one thing to claim that events and social processes are moving in a particular direction, such that this or that goal is likely to be realized. It’s something very different to claim that History is a moral, even metaphysical, force that’s progressing towards a morally desirable conclusion. There’s no reason to believe this at all.
Christianity teaches that history moves in a linear fashion, and that we are headed towards the final reconciliation between heaven and earth in the Parousia. This does not imply “progress,” though — especially because, in the Christian vision, the cruelest and most violent and oppressive period in the history of humanity will come into being just before good permanently triumphs. The Christian vision of history as progressing towards a final fulfillment may or may not be true, but it can’t be said to give false comfort that one’s own cause is justified by Progress. The closer we get to the culmination of History, the worse things will get for humanity, especially for Christians. Besides which, the Christian doctrine of original sin means that any concept of an earthly utopia is doomed. See A Canticle For Leibowitz for an imaginative exploration of the persistence of radical evil within the breast of humans despite material progress.
The secular version of this comes from Marx and his materialist conception of history. John Gray wrote a book, Black Mass, about how thinkers inspired by the Enlightenment took the Christian notion of history as progressing towards utopia, and secularized it. That is, Marx taught that history was inevitably leading towards a communist paradise, a restoration of Eden in which the source of human conflict — a fight over resources — will have been exorcised.
That looks ridiculous now, of course, but the worship of Progress remains deeply embedded within liberalism — including the conservative form of liberalism that sees free-market democracy as the telos of political and economic history (George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural address is a pure statement of the right-wing version of this). Whenever I hear someone today talk about “the right side of history,” I am sure they are on what Milan Kundera called “The Grand March,” the idea of which is the essence of left-wing kitsch. From The Unbearable Lightness Of Being:
The fantasy of the Grand March that Franz was so intoxicated by is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies. The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March. … What makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March.
UPDATE: What Daniel Larison says, especially:
The danger of using rhetoric about “right” and “wrong” sides of history isn’t just that it’s self-justifying nonsense, but that it is used to authorize unjust behavior against others and it makes it more difficult to resolve and avoid conflicts. If you believe that yours is the side favored by History, you have fewer incentives to compromise and reach negotiated solutions with your rivals and adversaries, and if both sides believe that their ideology or cause is destined to prevail it becomes extremely difficult to avoid war and equally difficult to limit it when it happens.
Right. It’s a secular way of saying “God is on our side.”
Fidel Castro famously gave a speech in 1953 in which he justified his rebellion against the dictator Batista with the phrase, “History will absolve me.” Castro looked like the future, once. And now he is a decrepit old dictator who has presided over half a century of police-state ruin, and the oppression of his people. The historical record convicts him. Right?
Look at Francisco Franco. Right-wing dictator. But he kept his nation from going the way of Cuba. Same with Augusto Pinochet. Does history absolve them? Why or why not?
My point is not to say “Down with Castro! Up with Franco and Pinochet!” My point is simply that to claim History as some sort of metaphysical force is dangerous. It is right and necessary to look at the historical record when judging politics and events. But to claim the force of Destiny for one’s favored political, religious, or ideological cause is very risky.